Gregory Maqoma and Thuthuka Sibisi: Broken Chord review – fascinating story comes alive in song
In 1891, a group of singers named the African Choir sailed from Cape Town to Britain to begin a two-year-long tour, aiming to raise money to fund a school in South Africa. They performed for audiences in England, Canada and the US, and even for Queen Victoria, singing a mix of African and European music, dressed in “native costume” as well as westernised clothes.
This little-known moment in history inspired choreographer Gregory Maqoma’s Broken Chord, a piece of dance-music-theatre created with composer Thuthuka Sibisi. It’s performed by Maqoma alongside a hugely impressive quartet of singers: Tshegofatso Khunwane, Simphiwe Sikhakhane, Lubabalo Velebhayi and the brilliant and versatile Nokuthula Magubane, the sole woman of the group.
Some aspects of the story are given relatively straightforward treatment: the singers arriving by boat, marvelling at Big Ben and the Thames, only to be met by hostile stares and chants of “Go home!” which are voiced by UK choir Echo Vocal Ensemble, functioning as dramatic and musical antagonists on stage. But as it progresses, Broken Chord becomes looser in form, touching on colonial dominance, missionary education and “civilisation”, the performance of ethnic identity and being “a good Black”. Some of this infiltrates the music itself, which puts Christian hymns next to Xhosa click consonants, styles shifting between eras and continents.
Sung throughout, the sounds move from a haunting, quivering opening into stirring, sonorous harmonies and polyrhythmic propulsion. Not only are the four leads sterling singers, with stamina, but they are charismatic movers too, backing up Maqoma, who at 49 has said this show will be his last as a performer. Still he moves with ease and magnetism: feet skipping, torso quaking, shoulders and hips bouncing in their sockets, drawing on Xhosa and contemporary dance. He seems to embody multiple facets of the journey: he’s unsettled, he’s homesick, he’s resolute, he’s playful, he’s powerful.
That slackening of the dramatic thread, while it allows the storytelling to take on different shapes, means they don’t wring as much value and detail out of this fascinating account as they could – after all, these themes aren’t confined to one historical event. But the skill and resonant sound of the main cast is enough to make this a potent performance.